A Hymn for St Andrew’s Day

A Hymn for St Andrew’s Day

Tune: Jerusalem DLM

Note: this is not a great hymn, but I wanted to set something to Jerusalem in the hope that that might be a tune that most of our students had at least heard. I also wanted to incorporate our school’s mission statement, if such it is. The result is a little contrived, but you might find a line or two to plunder, like people pinching bits of ruined abbey for their dry-stone walls. I write hymns as Sophie Fowler, a habit that began as a joke and is now too treasured to abandon.

 

For St Andrew’s Church of England High School, Croydon

In God through grace and guidance, to grow and give

 

When Jesus speaks, he calls by name

servants of his to walk his way.

So Andrew laid aside his nets

to follow Jesus every day.

He bids us, “See the Lamb of God!”

—his blood for us in death outpoured—

that all our thoughts and words and deeds

might praise and worship Christ our Lord.

 

Lord, we are few, our gifts are small.

Many are hungry, cold, oppressed;

yet by your Spirit’s mighty power

our loaves and fishes will be blessed.

For all who seek your face, O Christ,

we pray you, Saviour, in us live;

then all will see that we in God

through grace and guidance grow and give.

 

Sophie Fowler b.1963

 

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Jesus said, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On!’

Homily for the Second Sunday before Advent Year B

Daniel 12.1-3; Hebrews 10.11-14; 19-25; Mark 13.1-8

Imposing buildings have always communicated something of the power and wealth of their builders: this has been part of their purpose. Herod’s Temple was a wonder of the world, the largest and finest building that most who saw it would ever see. When the disciples encounter these ‘large stones and large buildings’, one of their first instincts is perhaps to wonder whether it’s absolutely wise to be picking so many fights with the people in charge. They’ve only been in town for three days, but Jesus has already announced the apostasy of the Temple regime, symbolically causing a fig tree to wither, and enacting a parable of the Temple’s destruction by overturning money-changers’ tables and driving out the traders. His parable of the wicked tenants is a public denunciation of opponents who understand his meaning and are in consequence angry and vengeful.

It is conceivably an awareness of this dangerous atmosphere that prompts the disciple’s exclamation at the beginning of chapter 13. But Jesus is in no mood to be impressed or emollient: all of this will fall down, he promises: it will all be dust. Whether by dint of gratuitous Roman force or the divine abandonment of faithless Israel, the Temple will offer no salvation to God’s people. Not one stone will remain on top of another. All will come tumbling down.

But when will this be? ask the incredulous disciples, perhaps convinced that this Titanic of temples is indestructible. Their question receives no answer: only the Father knows such things. No doubt one of the many impostors who will claim to be the Chosen One or Jesus-returned-to-earth will be more than happy to offer a precise date for the Temple’s destruction, or even for the ending of the world. But Jesus permits no such speculation: the only task for his disciples, for Mark’s readers and for us, is to remain alert, to avoid alarm, and to endure to the end: in short, to Keep Calm and Carry on.

There will be many things to alarm and distract them: there will be wars and natural disasters; betrayals and persecutions; they will be caught up in the bloody fall-out of imperial power-struggles and the brutal quelling of Jewish revolt. The fall of a building as significant as the Temple will be a moment of far-reaching consequence: well might they ask the question when?

But none of these events is to be taken as a sign that the Lord is about to come in glory, to establish his reign, put an end to suffering and reward the righteous. They are simply —to use the ubiquitous image of the Old Testament— just the beginnings of the birth pangs of God’s coming kingdom. The end is not now. Evil has more work to do. In a gradual unravelling of the work of creation, the sun and the moon will be extinguished and the stars will fall from the sky. In such deep darkness, the only recourse will be flight to the mountains, without even stopping for a winter coat.

When then might we expect our God to intervene? This is the repeated question of those who suffer. God, where are you? Are you busy? On a journey? Are you asleep? This is the question heard in the trenches of the First World War; it was asked by those who died in the concentration camps of the Second World War; it will be asked by those who perish, and by those who remain to witness the ongoing violence of Burundi, the conflagration of Syria, the hellish refugee camps that punctuate the globe in its poverty and suffering; and it is of course the question asked all weekend as we turn our eyes to the incomprehensible suffering of our near neighbours in Paris. God, where are you? When will you intervene?

The biblical tradition is rich in images of God sitting in judgement on faithless Israel, only to relent, defeat the various enemy armies and then lead God’s flock to eventual freedom. It is in order to capture some of this story that St Mark sets chapter 13 on the Mount of Olives. What may look like a superfluous geographical detail is in fact reminiscent of the prophecy of Zechariah, in which God sits on the Mount of Olives as on a judgement seat, then causes it to split in two (like the Red Sea), providing an escape route for the trapped Israelites. And on this day of deliverance there will be no darkness but only light; and the Lord will become king over all the earth (cf Zechariah 14. 4-9).

As he and his disciples look across from this same Mount of Olives, Jesus foresees no easy escape from the suffering of Jerusalem, and no future role for the Temple in the work of salvation. This work, as the early followers of Jesus are clear, is taken on by Jesus himself: as today’s epistle has it, all necessary sacrifice is made in the flesh of Jesus himself: we in turn are sprinkled not with the blood of beasts, but with the water of baptism, by which we are incorporated as living stones into the Temple of the Lord’s body, empowered for his redemptive work in the world.

And perhaps we ‘living stones’ are destined for destruction and obsolescence as surely as the mighty stone Temple of two millennia ago? There are plenty who would happily see an end to any sense of the divine and any understanding of religious tradition and belonging. As a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist put it on Friday night, ‘Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Parisisaboutlife’.

History will reveal how much time we have. For the moment, we can only respond faithfully and patiently to the gospel command to remain alert and endure suffering. In most western parishes, this will be confined to the usual human experience of sickness and frustration and an occasional broken heart. But we cannot know the day or the hour when we may be required to experience such pain as is suffered today in France. We must ready ourselves for this possibility, not with hatred or suspicion or incarceration behind high walls. Rather, we must (as the epistle puts it) ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope, without wavering’, living in ‘the way that Jesus opened for us, provoking one another to love and good deeds.’

We must resist the lure and wasted energy of speculating about the Lord’s return, preferring to proclaim and model his love and forgiveness as powerful weapons, demonstrating his welcome to all people, not to make them like ourselves, but to delight in them as they are. This is the way of life that will respond most effectively to the current darkness, offer comfort to the grieving, support to the bewildered, confidence to the fearful and companionship to any who feel corralled by suspicion and earmarked for retribution.

In six weeks, we will celebrate the birth of Christ, whom we acknowledge as the light who shines in the darkness without ever being quenched. All of us who are part of the Temple of his body must communicate this character and his work of redeeming through unstoppable love. This will never inoculate us against the pain of profound loss, but it will at least place us firmly at the Lord’s side, close enough to be formed by contact with him, to study him closely and thus to imitate him most convincingly in these bewildering and unsettling days.

Worship that Changes Lives

Above, you will find that I have blogged the first half of a talk on Advent Worship. I was then asked if I could let the initial audience have a copy of all of what I had said to them, so I have tidied up the second more general half as well. I post it here without much enthusiasm, but it does say a couple of things especially about variety and choice that I think are genuinely important.

 Principles and Practice of Worship

Worship without purpose

I confess to a sense of uneasiness at the prospect of regarding worship as something that has a purpose — even as desirable a purpose as to change lives, to draw outsiders into the Church or to deepen in faith those already baptised and engaged. I do see that worship, if performed over a sufficient length of time, will have the cumulative effect of forming its practitioners in new ways of thinking and living. But I also want to be clear that, beyond itself, worship is entirely purposeless: above all else, it is simply an outpouring of love for the God who first loved us. I take it that worship will always retain some of that simple gazing into each other’s eyes that characterises and befits lovers.

Fr Peter Allan CR wrote about this some years ago in a paper given to cathedral precentors. He talked of the weakness common to almost all Cathedral liturgies, namely that

‘they are designed to please; to meet diverse needs of a diverse congregation – and what we like to hear (and expect to hear) is that “it was a lovely occasion”.  However, liturgy proper is simply the structured way in which the risen and ever-present Christ enables us to renew the grace-full encounter with him – and particularly those who have become members of his body through baptism and who are thereby drawn into the life of the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

With this caveat in place, and in acknowledgement of the undeniable fact that many will encounter the gospel through worship casually encountered, it is right to try to identify now some hallmarks of wisdom as we wonder what kind of thing this worship might be.

Worship and the Community

A starting point would be to say is that there is no such thing as worship in general. There is only the worship of a particular community, revealing its own aspirations, concerns, hierarchies and neuroses. Each community must therefore exercise honesty and self-knowledge as it establishes and becomes accustomed to the manner in which it worships: if you’re actually a Radio 2 community, it won’t do to try to worship in a Radio 3 or 4 way, however much you think it might impress those new people in the smart houses whom you’d quite like to attract.

Each community also recognises that it grows out of a particular part of the Christian tradition: none of us begins with a blank sheet. We are therefore faced with choices as to where we place ourselves on the theological, cultural and aesthetic continuums that inspire and inform every act of worship. And we must decide how lightly we are going to sit to all of that: refusal to act in certain otherwise laudable ways simply because they would have alarmed our liturgical and theological forebears is three-quarters of the way to idolatry, so, whatever Grandma might have thought, we might sometimes just have to take a deep breath and get on with something.

Worship and Choice

For better or worse, our generation finds itself living and working at a time when the relationship with tradition is made harder to navigate by the overwhelming quantity and easy communication of liturgical text and praxis that are readily available to us. We have, in just half a century, moved from a BCP liturgy in which everything could be found within the covers of one book (with little visible difference between Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day), into a URL or web-address liturgy, in which we have abandoned the very idea that anything as limiting and quickly obsolete as a book is remotely serviceable in communicating the tradition.

This is obviously a good thing insofar as it allows communities to be refreshed when their prayer and worship have grown stale by an overreliance on a severely limited number and pattern of texts. But it can quickly become malign if the worshipping community begins to be dominated by the need for novelty that characterises much of our ordinary life. (The next time you’re in a supermarket, count the different varieties of jam.) Churches and their pastors will need to be quite disciplined about their reaction to all this choice and unashamed in their desire to know some things by heart.

Liturgy and Formation

This is where we might repeat the observation that worship is always the worship of a particular community. Leading worship is therefore never a merely musical or rhetorical or choreographic act: it is always pastoral, one expression of leading a community. Good shepherds know their sheep, and will have an open ear, week by week, listening out for signs that perhaps an injection of something new is needed, or accepting that what the community longs for is simply time to assimilate and inhabit the materials that have already been offered to them in perhaps a very short time. Just as dancing shoes are only any use to us when we don’t realise we have them on, so too our liturgical texts and habits only enable us to worship when they have become part of us. And while it is possible for sudden moments of startling clarity to be delivered in a brief encounter with an unfamiliar text (visual, verbal or musical), nonetheless, most formation is as it is in the gym: gradual, sometimes tedious, often unappealing but reliably cumulative.

Liturgy and Growth

We all see that there is an urgent need to grow the church. This is in part a need to draw people into a Christian vision of what it is to be human and to inhabit the earth. Humanity and our home are both in very serious trouble: we are increasingly sick (mental illness is a notable problem especially among young people) and profoundly anxious. There is also a more superficially trivial, but not unrelated need for the Established Church to care for the buildings that hallow our landscape and thus proclaim Christ — to say nothing of their function as places where so much community work is carried out. This work needs to be financed, as does the whole work of mission and ministry, all of which gives a sense of urgency to our financial condition, which in turn has repercussions on the worshipping life of a parish. As one hard-pressed lay minister once said to me, ‘If they don’t like my all-age worship they won’t come back. They’ll go and find one they do like, and we’ll have lost them for ever.’

Given these pressing realities, what are we to do? I do not suppose that any of us would be content to see worship become simply another form of money-making entertainment: and while we might be comfortable with the notion of people enjoying coming to church, we would probably be concerned if they experienced nothing other than enjoyment.

What we must avoid is enslavement to anxiety. We may interest ourselves in the liturgical provision and guidance that is abundantly available to us; we might even leave some room for the operation of the Holy Spirit who comes to us just as surely in silence as in wind and fire. But let us also trust the common life and work of our communities to play their part in drawing new disciples into the Body of Christ. People are unlikely to remain wedded to faith no matter how staggering our preaching or data projection might be, unless we are good to be with, and productively engaged in trying to make the world a better place.

Our Liturgy will need to be consistent with all of this, cut from the same cloth: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi.  Participants in worship must feel and know that the extraordinary actions they are performing take them in some way to the very heart of goodness, beauty and truth, inviting them to an initial change of heart and to a subsequent programme of discipleship and formation. As Gabriel Hebert put it in his 1935 classic Liturgy and Society,

‘That the church should inspire a certain repulsion is intelligible enough. But she also exercises an attraction; … it is not least the sacred actions and words of Christian worship that make to very many a deep appeal, and inspire hope that amid the disintegration of modern life, this sacred symbolism [he is speaking particularly of the Eucharist] is an expression of reality, of the City whose builder and maker is God.’

Liturgy and Sacrifice

At the heart of the Gospel is the Lord’s contention that it is only by spending our lives in sacrifice, taking up our cross each day, that we can qualify for the ‘abundant life’ he comes to bring. Any coming to faith and growth in commitment will necessarily involve an acceptance of this central teaching, and a positive attraction to it. This may be initiated in a variety of ways, but its nourishment and fruition will involve regular participation in the worshipping life of the community. This worship will need to have its chief focus in an abandonment to the love of God, who draws us to God’s heart as deep calls to deep. It will also need to be culturally and aesthetically apt in order to draw people into its orbit. It will further need to nourish us all in our hunger, immersing us in the Scriptures and forming us in tradition, till Christ be formed in us.

Whatever else our worship is, then, it must be that gathering of the baptised with Word and Bread and Cup, in which God speaks to us of Exodus, healing and sacrifice; for without these, we can receive neither life nor love, and will have nothing to say when asked to give an account of the faith and hope we profess. And that, you’ll agree, would be a terribly awkward silence.

Remembrance, Mission and the Mending of Nets – a homily for Remembrance Sunday

Remembrance Sunday 2015

Micah 4.1-5 (as at Morning Prayer); Mark 1.14-20

We are made by what we remember, by the stuff laid down in the cellars of our mind, forming and fashioning us. It’s the stuff we can never wholly forget. For most of us, naturally, the images we have of the major wars, so distant now in time, are derived from film and books, things found in Google images: the tin-hatted Tommy, a long way from Tipperary; the deep fog defending St Paul’s; the emaciated victims of Belsen, liberated just in time.

But each generation experiences its own wars and generates its own stock of iconic images. Yours might be the picture of the little girl running naked from the dense smoke of destruction in the Vietnam war. Or it may be the smoke of HMS Sheffield struck by Exocet missiles in the South Atlantic in 1982. For many more there is the picture of the Twin Towers, brought down by terrorists in 2001, black smoke filling the skies as, floors beneath, men and women jumped heartbreakingly from window-sills to avoid sure incineration in the bright orange flames that plumed extravagantly from the tower tops.

More recently still, the body of Aylan Kurdi, the boy washed-up lifeless on a Turkish beach some weeks ago is also fixed, not easily to be erased, one more victim of war, a consequence of what Mr Chamberlain might have called “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

All of us, then, including the youngest teenager, have something to remember today, even though remembrance itself has changed. For today is not like the remembrance of the Armistice in the 1920s and 30s when families and villagers remembered their own fallen kin, honouring the sacrifice of fathers and brothers, nephews, neighbours, sons. For most of us now, our engagement with this remembering of the valiant dead is through art and history, through things we’ve learned at school or seen on TV. Most of us have no friends or relations who have died in warfare. Our Remembrance Sunday is a requiem for all the unknown men and women whose lives have been and will be lost as a result of our human inability to share the wealth and beauty of our planet fairly, without falling from time to time into destruction, murder and bloodshed.

It is the same flawed quality of humankind that appals the Prophet Micah in the chapter immediately before today’s extract from the Old Testament. It is here that he describes the doom that will be so easily recognisable to all those who have suffered the reality of warfare:

Hear, you rulers of the house of Israel! You hate the good and love the evil; you eat the flesh of my people; you detest justice, you build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Because of you Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.

From this, in chapter 4, follows the description of what shall happen “in the latter days” when

the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains. Many people shall flow to it and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord that he may teach us his ways. He shall judge between peoples. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit everyone under their vine and under their fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

Those who have witnessed the death and destruction of chapter three have been not so much destroyed by what they have remembered of previous suffering, but rather have been built and sustained by its counterpart, a vision and a longing for what can be and must be the case when the smoke has cleared. It is precisely this vision of how things shall be when they are finally ordered as they should be, that the gospel writers call the coming of the Kingdom of God.

But notice in today’s gospel reading how modest are the resources Jesus calls as his accomplices in beginning this transformation! No armies. No great strategists. No advertising campaign. Just two pairs of brothers messing about in boats. One pair, Simon and Andrew, are casting their net into the water for a feed of fish; another pair, James and John, are quietly busying themselves, mending their nets while they chat with their father and the labourers who help them.

The mending of nets is a beautiful image, undoubtedly. On the one hand, it is quietly practical and prosaic, conjuring a vision of patient workers deftly knitting together the criss-cross strands on which they rely for their daily survival. But it is yet more powerful as a metaphor, speaking of the slow process of binding together the disparate strands of a community, linking the ways in which my life and yours, his life and hers are all intertwined and interdependent. As we always say, only we can know what it is that our nets have to carry; only we know what our personal circumstances are. But any course of action, the repair of any relationship, the seeking out of any healing will be a mending of our own nets, and so an equipping of us for the work in this parish of mending the nets of the world around us.

Now, the world’s needs are very urgent, there are infinite nets to mend, and the task of this net-mending is supremely pressing. It is natural that much of the task will fall to government, big business, the military, the international charity organisations: it will be a work of strategy, economics, diplomacy and politics, and it will go on at a level of society far more elevated than any at which we here might expect to operate.

But this does not exclude us at all from the task of mending nets, for all our lowliness . Our task is as simple and as urgent as it always is: to do what we can locally in our church and in our school to pave the way for the just reign of God through

  • proclaiming the kingdom;
  • teaching the faith;
  • responding to need;
  • opposing injustice and violence; and
  • safeguarding creation.

For all of this, we will need strong nets to carry not a weight of fish, but the immense weight of future hopes and past hatreds, that cargo of dreams and fears which, if sorted through with patience, will lead to an unimaginably rich harvest for our society, and a bequest of immense blessing for our children and theirs as they inhabit a Jerusalem newly built in England’s green and pleasant land.

As we honour today the memory of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, we have heads and hearts full of the images of war and humanity at its worst. But despite these we must commit ourselves, along with Andrew and Peter, James and John, to an ineradicable vision of the kingdom, and to the gathering in of a great catch of fruitfulness, a rich shoal of human souls.

We begin by mending our nets.

Poppies red and white

Let us all wear the one red poppy with pride, sorrow, and unquenchable hope

 I was quite surprised to see a conversation on Twitter this week about the wearing of white poppies for Remembrance. Although I have been assured by one tweet that “white poppies have been respectfully worn for nearly as long as red ones,” I don’t remember having seen any since 1985, the year I wore a plain red one, tippexed white, as an angry young student in York Minster.

I don’t recall hearing anything about them before that year, either, but perhaps I had an impossibly sheltered upbringing. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to Google your way to a full history of the white poppy. My recollection of the early 1980s is that it was a time when many on the left, especially those of us who were young, felt a powerful reaction against the perceived harshness, heartlessness and easy militarism of Mrs Thatcher’s government, following the Falklands war and the ‘khaki election’ of 1983. Connections were made between the loss of life in that conflict and the loss of livelihoods during those years of high unemployment. Tony Benn, for example, got into deep water during one BBC Question Time for suggesting that members of the working class had particularly suffered during the Falklands fighting, having enlisted as a consequence of unemployment. David Steel (I think) reminded him that members of all classes had lost their lives in that war. But, that said, the poorest always do suffer the most whatever the prevailing wind: it was ever thus, and ever thus shall be.

This was the context that coloured the general relationship between Robert Runcie’s Church of England and the government. There was a specific difficulty surrounding the post-Falklands service in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Whereas Archbishop Runcie (holder of the unanswerably prestigious Military Cross) was clear that we needed to express a sense of sorrow for our own shortcomings in the relationship with Argentina and all that had followed, many government supporters saw no reason why we couldn’t have a full-on service of thanksgiving with trumpets, bunting, Land of Hope and Glory, and so on. (That’s a caricature, but you see the picture.)

In the early 1980s, therefore, the white poppy was worn by those who wanted to reject the government and anything that smacked of too-ready a reliance on military solutions to political problems past and present. It was adopted by those who wanted to commemorate conscientious objectors and others who had lost their lives in wars without being part of the Armed Forces; by those who wanted to ally themselves firmly with the peace movement, including organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and, I suspect, by those who felt that the great mass of unthinking red-poppy wearers were somehow not in favour of peace as ardently as they should be.

I wore one in November 1985 for a variety of reasons, but would say now that the wearing of a white poppy at Remembrance (while by no means necessarily disrespectful of the sacrifice of the fallen) is not something I could support. (I know that there are different traditions in other countries. I obviously speak only of the United Kingdom.)

My main reason has something to do with symbols. One of the things about any symbol is that it is shared by the community in which it is recognised, and that it has the capacity to speak without constant commentary or explanation. Some symbols are relatively straightforward, part of our natural furniture. One thinks of bread like this, a symbol of the fruits of our collective labour. Light is also unequivocal as a symbol. Others are more complex and richer, like water, which (in my own work of Christian worship) can be a symbol of purity, or birth or life; even of death, depending on context.

The symbol of the poppy arose entirely naturally from the earth, a consequence of the fact that the poppy grows particularly abundantly in any land that has been vigorously disturbed. It grows well on roadsides where the Gas Board has been laying new pipes, piling up the earth as part of the process. And, of course, it grew particularly well in Flanders fields after the cataclysmic churning of the First World War. And so the first statement of this symbol is one of hope: out of disorder and chaos and destruction, beauty, however fragile, can emerge. For the poppy is a fragile flower. It is easily crushed. Picked, it quickly withers. Alone, it is of little consequence; yet, as one of a myriad standing together, it is a thing of immense beauty and can colour an entire landscape with a vibrancy that catches the attention. It is also, as happy chance would have it, a flower that is red, and in its flourishing in the fields there flows that colour of birth and death, reminding us powerfully of every life lost in warfare, and every child born into the misery of discord. From that remembrance comes representation, and so the poppy petals fall from the heights of the Albert Hall.

I find something right and appealing in this ‘one size fits all’ quality of the poppy, for although in warfare lives are lost in different circumstances, and although the fighting we commemorate has been of very different kinds and causes, nonetheless every lost life testifies to the pride, stubbornness and folly that runs through our human nature, blossoming diabolically at those dreadful intervals when compassion and fellow-feeling are abandoned, and ploughshares and pruning hooks are beaten into swords and spears.

The poppy testifies also, of course, to human beings at our very best; to the immense courage and selflessness of those in whom goodness and virtue are so deeply rooted, whose fruits are seen in a beautiful, endless variety, from Goose Green to Gallipoli and from Belfast to Basra. It is in this sense that we can wear our poppy with pride: not in a narrow or self-satisfied tribal preening, but in humble recognition of what men and women of every race and creed can be.

A single poppy commemorates the young Tommy killed on the Somme; or the householder killed on the north-east coast by early experiments in aerial bombardment during the First World War. It commemorates the civilians, as ordinary as you or me, or their children as vulnerable as ours, killed in the air raids of 1940, some of them remembered in the stained glass of St Andrew’s, Croydon. It commemorates the soldiers and sailors obliterated in the Exocet attack on HMS Sheffield in the South Atlantic in 1982; or, more recently, the professional military personnel sent near and far to keep the peace. It commemorates the journalists who lose their lives as they write the first draft of history, reporting from distant war zones. It commemorates the easily-forgotten soldiers of the Empire, the Aussies and the Kiwis, the West Indians and Gurkhas, the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, all those whose white gravestones glisten in the military cemeteries of France with the same pure light as those that cover the bones of young lads from Yorkshire and Lancashire, from Surrey and Kent. And, let there be no mean measuring out of the milk of human compassion: the poppy we wear commemorates those who were our foes, though we never knew them. It remembers the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of those whose prowess we have lately applauded on the rugby field, those with whom we now do business, who build our cars and sell us holidays, and share with us in the task of addressing the global emergencies of today, building that safe and peaceful world that has eluded us thus far. And a single poppy calls out to those who are our foes, reminding them, and reminding us also of the need for courage and wisdom whenever evil threatens, and of the constant need for truthfulness and probity in all our international dealings. Just a single poppy reminds us sharply of the deep fragility of any human life, and of the appalling consequences of unleashing war and violence in any corner of the world.

The poppy, small and fragile though it is, has the strength to bear this great freight of remembrance and exhortation, but only if it remains an undivided symbol. In England, and in the United Kingdom, we have seen what can happen when a flag becomes associated not with the whole community but with certain strands within it. If the poppy is divided, it too will no longer be a symbol of a united human determination to make our future less bloody and much more just, and will enable any who deal in hatred in this cacophonous age to dismiss some as war-mongering fools, to denounce others as cowards and traitors.

On this day of all days, it would be good if we could stand together, diverse yet united under one unbroken symbol.